In northern Iceland, more than five hours by car from Reykjavík, exists a mountainous jut of land called Tröllaskagi—the Troll Peninsula, home to the tallest peaks outside of Iceland’s central highlands. The name is derived from a legend which claims Iceland’s last troll was killed in a cave there in 1764 by a farmer who was angry that the troll had eaten his cow. The peninsula’s highest peak is just over 5,000 feet above sea level, but the sea itself is right there at your feet. Even into June, when the midnight sun is in full effect (the Arctic Circle is a few miles north), you can often ski down to the shoreline.
The maritime moisture content and the long, dark Arctic winters make for a surprisingly stable spring snowpack. Sometimes there’s fresh powder, but in April and May—the apex of the Troll ski-touring season—you are more likely to find corn of the rare, stubborn kind that doesn’t quickly morph into a Slurpee. So right as the lifts at Vail and Aspen and Park City idle for the season and muddy run-off inundates mountain towns in the lower 48, ski conditions are hitting their prime in northern Iceland. Hop on a flight in Boston or New York City, close your eyes for one REM cycle’s worth of sleep, and five hours later you’re in Reykjavik.
It’s that easy. The hard(er) part is skinning up mountains for days on end—hours of uphill climbing for ten minutes of downhill cruising, but oh how sweet the reward when you ski from summit to sea.
For one week, alongside eights Vermonters and a couple from Salt Lake City, I put my life and limbs in the hands of Arctic Heli Skiing, the premiere ski touring and ski mountaineering operator on the Troll Peninsula, and its crack team of professional guides. Arctic Heli Skiing is the brainchild of Jökull Bergmann, Iceland’s only internationally certified mountain guide who pioneered skiing on the Troll. He saw the possibility inherent in 1,500 square miles of varied Arctic terrain and, equally astute, knew that his clientele would welcome returning to the comforts of traditional Icelandic cabins and a spa featured at the home base of Klængshóll Lodge after a long day of skiing.
I was not to see Klængshóll or meet Jökull Bergmann for the first few days of my week-long trip, however. We ski tourers were deposited in a valley west of Dalvík at the farmstead of one of the most hospitable women you’re ever bound to meet, Myriam, where we slept in bunk beds and feasted family-style around a long table stacked high with freshly caught salmon and homemade bread and jams with a sugar content certain to usher in early-onset diabetes. In the morning we would pile into a van and drive in whichever direction our guide, the unflappable Einar, thought the skiing would be best. Barring one day where we drove a couple of hours down and around the length of Eyjafjörður, Iceland’s longest fjord, to summit a mountain called Kaldbaksgata, every day of skiing was no more than a 15-minute drive from our valley home. Oftentimes we would return in the evening and, over a glass of wine, stare out the window and retrace our lines, faint and imperceptible though they might be, down a mountain slope on the horizon.
As is wont to happen on a trip that throws perfect strangers, united in their shared affinity for the outdoors, into a mixing bowl which blends together mind-numbing physical exertion and awe-inspiring scenery into a compressed period of time, friendships are fast to form and seemingly impossible to break. We were a family of ten following our fearless leader, Einar, up hillsides tufted with grass, ski boots on and skis strapped onto our backs, dogged in our search for snow. We would traverse single-file across plateaus so vast and white I felt certain vertigo was imminent. We would ski laps when the snow was good, our enthusiasm immutable in the face of exhaustion, and we would drive to the Dalvík hot springs when the weather was not cooperating. My increasingly blistered feet and aching legs were the only indicators of passing time—the days were otherwise a blur of putting skins on, hiking up, taking skins off, skiing down, and eating, always eating, salmon and lamb and trout and whatever else was put in front of us. Life was simple and unspeakably glorious.
By the time we relocated to Klængshóll Lodge, only one ski day remained. My feet were waving a white flag, and I made the impromptu (read: red wine-induced) decision to spend my final day heli-skiing while the group continued to tour. (The fact that my heli-skiing guide was a former underwear model in a previous chapter of his life didn’t hurt either.) Heli-skiing, not surprisingly, is an all-together different beast than ski touring. It is the ultimate expression of luxuriating in your athletic pursuit. If ski touring is a continuous, but supremely rewarding, slow plod up a mountain only to turn around and fly down all of your hard-fought vertical gain, heli-skiing is nonstop soaring. I found myself flying up, up, up and away over a broad river as it carved through the valley in which Klængshóll lies, darting over ridges, rising and falling in tune with ever-changing air pockets. The Icelandic countryside, void of trees, a stark juxtaposition of land and snow, brown and white, unfurled beneath me, and I was able to appreciate its vastness in a way that being a mere spectator on the ground rarely allows.
The skiing wasn’t too shabby either. After being deposited on a ridge, the “jump out, duck your head, grab your skis, and be careful not to hit the rotating propeller” movement being executed in one seamless stroke, Snorri, our pilot, would fly the “bird” away, and within a matter of seconds silence ensued. Skis pointed downhill, my depth perception distorted by the enormous, never-ending whiteness of the vast broad bowl in which we were about to descend, I followed my model (a.k.a. ski guide) from ridge to valley floor, lap after lap, skiing atop an ocean of liquid-smooth spring snow. To wipe the shit-eating grin off of my face that day would have been an impossible feat.
So, how do you do this? First, get yourself and your ski gear to Akureyri, Iceland, either a 5-hour drive or a 45-minute flight from Reykjavik, and the Arctic Heli Skiing team will take care of the rest. Ski touring and heli-skiing packages vary widely in price. The 6-day ski touring package, which includes full room and board, guide services, and transportation, rounds out to $3,840 per person. Three heli-skiing packages exist: six-day, four-day, and one-day. A single day of heli-skiing, which includes a four run minimum, lunch on the mountain, après ski snacks, and guide services, amounts to $1,100 per person. You know that classic Mastercard commercial which rattles off a list of things and their subsequent costs and ends with something that’s “priceless”? Well, that is this experience—absolutely invaluable.